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Remembering the April 19 Revolution

Posted April. 17, 2010 03:26,   


Marking the 50th anniversary of the April 19, 1960, pro-democracy revolution, the people should remember that democracy in the Republic of Korea is not something that was simply transferred from the West or bestowed by a democratic government. The flame of the revolution was lit by high school students in Daegu Feb. 28 that year, or 51 days before the movement started. Educational authorities forced students to return to school to block them from attending outdoor election campaigns on a Sunday in 1960, but students took to the streets to protest anyway. On the day of the presidential election March 15, when the ruling Freedom Party committed systematic illegal activities, a massive protest rally was held in Masan, South Gyeongsang Province. News then spread April 11 that the body of a 17-year-old high school student, Kim Ju-yeol, who was killed after being hit by a tear gas bomb in the eye at a demonstration that day, emerged from waters off the port of Masan.

After demonstration at Korea University in Seoul April 18, protest rallies were staged across the nation the next day. When college professors took to the streets, holding up banners reading “Compensate for student bloodshed” April 25, then President Rhee Syng-man announced his resignation the following day. As the public and professors joined a movement for justice initiated by students, they brought down a dictatorial government that sought prolonged rule through illegal elections. In the course of the campaign, however, 186 people were killed and 6,026 injured. This was a sacrifice for democracy and a “revolution through bloodshed.”

Yoo Se-hee, former chairman of the civic group April Club, said, “The democracy movement of the Republic of Korea started with the April 19 Revolution,” adding, “The revolution was an incident that showed the world for the first time that the Korean people have the capacity and will to embrace democracy.” He said this in his keynote speech at an academic conference marking the 50th anniversary of the revolution hosted yesterday by the club and the Korea Political Science Association. Public recognition of democracy has significantly increased and democracy started to take root after the revolution, so the revolution was the country’s first landmark incident in the successful national quest for democracy through struggle.

The Dong-A Ilbo also added momentum to the revolution. The newspaper carried in-depth reports on the rally in Daegu Feb. 28, and unearthed secret plans for illegal election campaigns. When Kim’s body emerged from the sea, Dong-A was the first to report this to the nation. Cho Yong-jung, former president of Yonhap News Agency who was a Chosun Ilbo reporter at the time of the revolution, said, “After an exclusive report by The Dong-A Ilbo, other newspapers scrambled to report on a secret police order for illegal election campaigns.” He said this at an April 7 seminar on the revolution and media hosted by the journalists’ group Kwanhun Club.

The revolution proved to be short-lived and incomplete due to the coup d’état of May 16, 1961. Its spirit was transferred to the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s, however, enabling the Korean people to realize democracy at long last. The country has had five peaceful transitions of government since 1987, meaning procedural democracy has taken root in the Republic of Korea.

What is truly lamentable, however, is that the democratic process and institutions are being frequently disregarded and crushed in the name of “the people.” The Constitution has in its preamble the clause, “Inherit the democratic ideology of the April 19 revolution that fought injustice.” Activities that undermine the fundamentals of democracy, including denial of election results, rejection of rule of law, and populist policies conducted in the name of “the people,” constitute nothing but suicidal acts.

The country cannot afford to be negligent in the effort to revive the spirit of the revolution in the context of the country’s modern history. The nation achieved both democracy and industrialization over a short period of time. At the same time, the importance of efforts by those who completed the challenging mission of nation building should never be forgotten, as well as those who led industrialization despite the constant threat of North Korean aggression.